by Phil Freeman
Ronin is one of the great action films of the 1990s. Directed by John Frankenheimer, it stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone and Stellan Skarsgård. Set in France, it follows a team of international professionals recruited by a mysterious and never-seen boss (described only as “the man in the wheelchair”) to retrieve a large metal case that both the Irish and the Russians are after.
The movie’s script was written by J.D. Zeik, a novice screenwriter, but radically reworked by David Mamet, who opted for the pseudonym Richard Weisz rather than share credit onscreen. Frankenheimer told the L.A. Times, “The credits should read: ‘Story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by David Mamet.’ We didn’t shoot a line of Zeik’s script.” There are many elements which recur in Mamet’s other work, including the shaving away of extraneous information (we don’t need to know what’s in the case, only that multiple parties wish to possess it, so we’re never told; in fact, when De Niro’s character asks, “What’s in the case?”, McElhone’s character tells him—and by extension, the audience—”That isn’t necessary”) and multiple layers of betrayal. Several characters offer cynically witty but somehow anachronistic aphorisms like “Everyone’s your brother until the rent comes due” and “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt” and “I got my job through the New York Times.”
This isn’t one of Mamet’s closed-off dramas, though, with all the action taking place in a room or two. It’s a big-budget, widescreen action movie, probably (and justifiably) best known for its car chases, which are intense and feature Audis and Mercedes bombing down narrow French streets. (Yes, they rampage through an open-air market, sending food flying.) There are open-air gunfights, multiple snipers, and Frankenheimer makes the most of the European locations.
The greatest pleasure of Ronin is watching professionals at work. All the members of the team are experts at what they do (with one notable exception, a loudmouth Irishman played by Sean Bean, but he washes out early, before he can endanger anyone but himself), and they conduct themselves with calm efficiency, rarely seeming to get upset even when the guns are out and the double-crosses are coming fast and furious. This same cool professionalism extends to the filmmaking. Frankenheimer never tricks the viewer; we see every betrayal happen, and there are no cynical twists. There are also no distractions—no comic relief, no extraneous characters, no romance. Like William Friedkin‘s Sorcerer or several other Mamet movies (The Spanish Prisoner, Spartan, Heist), this is a movie about people doing a job. But it all looks beautiful. The director of photography, Robert Fraisse, keeps the color palette somewhat muted, at least early on. Later, when cars are speeding around the French countryside and explosions are going off in the middle of crowded streets, the colors are brighter and more vibrant.
Ronin has just been reissued on a fantastic Arrow Video Blu-Ray. (Get it from Amazon.) It includes a new, exclusive restoration, using a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative and with the grading supervised by Fraisse. It looks and sounds amazing; when compared with the old DVD (which I own), it’s like an entirely new movie. Among the bonus materials are a brand-new interview with Fraisse, an audio commentary by Frankenheimer taken from the DVD edition, several making-of features focusing on various aspects of the movie (the car chases, the score, the editing, McElhone’s performance), and interviews with De Niro, Reno, and McElhone from the 1998 Venice Film Festival. There’s also a thick booklet with an essay by critic Travis Crawford. Watching Ronin now, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a hit upon release, but it kinda came and went, only to be re-discovered on home video. This is exactly the kind of deluxe treatment a movie this smart and exciting deserves.
Here’s a short video about the reissue: